Chris Harris at the Spa 24 Hours

What happens when Monkey races a Bentley GT3 car at his first Spa 24? Well, quite a lot...

No matter how much you try to ignore the banter, they always get behind your eyeballs and rummage around the area marked ‘paranoia’. Not the opposition – well, of course you have to worry about them in any form of motorsport because you just know the rest of the grid would do most things short of loosening your wheel bolts to ensure some manner of advantage. Nope, it’s your teammates that always screw with you in the most pernicious way. “Blanchimont? Yeah, that’s easy flat in the dry.” Easy flat – the lying b******s.

Words: Chris Harris

Photography: John Wycherley

Blanchimont in a GT3 car is kind of immense. There is no other word for it. It’s not challenging or especially technical – it’s a 140mph left-hander whose radius is perfect for these cars because it completely screws with your head. It’s immense with a capital F: a perfect combination of is-it-isn’t-it terror and enough immovable scenery to make you consider your options. They talk of Spa being neutered from its original form, but you can still have a colossal shunt at Blanchimont in a GT3 car. Under the right conditions – fresh rubber, low fuel and a decent smearing of rubber over the track – it probably is flat. But it wasn’t on my first flying lap during free practice at this year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa. 

I suppose, much like cricketing batsmen, all race drivers have a way of dealing with the first few moments at speed in the car. Mine is quite simple, if I know the data trace has already proved it’s possible, I simply have a go at it. Swallow hard, grip wheel, think of verdant fields and my children’s faces and see what happens. The fact that I still have four functioning limbs suggests this is not a wholly idiotic strategy.

I suspected matters might not be completely in order when the front tyres didn’t quite follow the prescribed course I’d requested. This is sixth gear and over 140mph and the lateral load is around 2g. There isn’t much time for steering correction or any change of heart. Backing off the throttle isn’t an option either, because the Bentley will happily spin at this speed if you disrespect its centre of mass. All you can really do is peel away from the throttle a little and hope the run-off area isn’t too bumpy. And that’s what I did. The car ran wide, my eyes widened and I carried on.

This was in free practice for what must be the most brutal, attritional 24hr race of them all. Over 60 cars capable of lapping within a second of each other, driven by a dangerously combustible mixture of professional and amateur racing drivers, on a fast, treacherous circuit boasting what must be the most changeable weather conditions in northern Europe. You want the recipe for a brutal motor race? Step this way.

This was my first 24 Hours of Spa. From the Tuesday afternoon that I arrived at the circuit   to  the Sunday the race finished, it was a lesson in attrition and karma. Five days I won’t forget in a hurry. The Total 24 Hours of Spa is both a stand-alone race and a round of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup I’ve been competing in all year with Team Parker Racing, in a Bentley Continental GT3. There are three separate championships, Pro, Pro-Am and Am – I’m classed as an amateur and have raced with two other amateur drivers all year. At Monza, Silverstone and Paul Ricard we were the fastest car/driver partnership, but some errors and bad luck left us with very few points to show for our potential pace.

But there were three sets of points available at Spa – distributed after 6, 12 and the full 24 hours. Win a few of those, and we could still bag the championship. 

The amateur drivers are always allowed a little extra circuit time, so on the Tuesday the Bentley pounded a few laps with my teammates Derek Pierce, Carl Rosenblad and David Perel. I was, as usual, stuck on an aeroplane. The weather was splendid, Derek and Carl were building in confidence and David (on secondment from Kessel Racing for this event) was very fast from the outset. When I arrived that balmy Tuesday evening, I had the sense that this whole endurance racing thing was so easy, that it only became difficult if you decided to make it so. 

On Wednesday, all the racecars were driven from the circuit into Spa town. This was excellent fun because it proved just how childish adult racing drivers really are when told to drive sensibly on the public highway in a racing car. Thousands of people came out to see the parade, and there was a definite mini-Le Mans feel in the air – albeit with cars that to my eyes look miles more attractive because they actually resemble things you can buy, as opposed to nondescript, identity-inert prototypes.  

Qualifying was on the Thursday. Two sessions: one in daylight, the other in darkness. We didn’t go especially well, sitting a lowly 53rd after each of us had run. The car was nervous and the front axle just wouldn’t work. One especially tricky Bentley trait is that once it begins to understeer, there’s no coming back. You can try trimming the throttle, releasing the steering angle, phoning WO’s great-grandchildren for a natter – whatever you think might help – but the only course of action is to slow the big, old thing down to the point where the front finds itself and then begin again. This is very, very annoying, and we usually spend the test sessions trimming it away with damper, roll-bar and geometry changes. We thought we had this time, but clearly we hadn’t.

Still, qualifying means nothing in a 24hr race – really, it doesn’t. It’s a great big pissing contest which allows the factory teams to garner more television exposure. But racing is about going as fast as possible regardless of what the sage voices tell you, and that’s why the top 20 shootout is the very essence of this sport. On Friday afternoon, the 20 fastest machines finally answered the question the rest of us slow coaches had been asking all year: just how much has everyone been sandbagging?

Quite a lot, as it turned out. The times tumbled a further second below the first quali session, and the ‘who’s been hiding their true pace more than the others’ question was succinctly answered by Mercedes, who took each of the first six places on the grid. This sent the paddock into paroxysms of outrage as other brands presented what they called anger, when in reality they were just jealous. I was a little disappointed when, the following morning, the stewards announced that all six Mercs had been stripped of their times in the shootout due to an ignition timing cheat. Still, the works Bentleys were sitting pretty in 3rd and 10th, and our teammates in the other Team Parker Racing Pro-Am Continental snuck in a brilliant lap to start 8th overall. We were 53rd. I love a challenge.

Carl took the start and perfectly executed the keep-out-of-trouble strategy that we’d agreed was the only way to approach the race. Take risks, pin it to the maximum and you might – just might – gain a second a lap. Endure just one unscheduled pit-stop, and the smallest time penalty would be at least six minutes. There are many, many seconds in six minutes. 

Carl ran for an hour, keeping his nose clean, and within a few minutes of beginning my stint the world went a little crazy. There was a crash at Raidillon as a Ferrari collected a Porsche exiting the pits. Both cars were destroyed, and the barrier repair took nearly an hour. Richard, our demon chief engineer and strategist, pitted me in the middle of the long safety-car period, and when the track went green again, we began to make progress. This was some of the most enjoyable racing I’ve experienced. The Pro cars give no quarter whatsoever, so you try to hang with them, but the Ams and some of the Pro-Ams were there to play with, and after a while we started to climb up the leader-board. A second long safety-car stint saw one more splash-and-dash, so by the time I handed over to Derek, we’d gone from 53rd to 39th overall, from 7th in class to 1st in class. This endurance racing lark was easy.

This was some of the most enjoyable racing I’ve experienced. 

I hadn’t even removed my race suit when news came in that Derek had suffered a mishap at Les Combes. His pace had been very good, but the car took ages to be pulled from the barriers and by the time it left the past again, this time with David Perel at the wheel, we’d lost an hour and any realistic chance of the result we wanted. The Team Parker boys did a sterling job patching up the Conti, but it looked battle-worn, and we were only five hours in. Reminding yourself that all is not lost can be so difficult. Despite being laps away from our rivals, it was still entirely conceivable that we could win the class. All we had to do was keep trucking and wait for what the insurance industry calls an Act of God. 

And we did just that, without the timing screen ever really showing anything different, such was our deficit. But the madness was a long way from over. During my next stint, the Kessel Ferrari 488 spun me 360° between La Source and Eau Rouge. Even now, I don’t really want to think about the potential consequences. The car wasn’t badly damaged, but it took a while to fix. And then the Spa weather turned pernicious, and once again the brave old number 30 Bentley caught the worst of it – this time in the form of a flooded track. Carl had no chance, and the car was now too badly damaged to continue. After 19 hours of battling, we were all completely dejected. 

I’ve never seen a crew of mechanics work harder than the Team Parker boys did that weekend. They were a collective ball of energy that never stopped running and dashing and striving to keep the car circulating. But sometimes it just isn’t your race. 

The Total 24 Hours of Spa is the most gruelling race I’ve experienced. In the days after, I thought it might just be best to leave it alone. But now I’m desperate to go back and have another go. It gets under your skin. 

 

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